In the clash between the West and Islam that has characterized the beginnings of the 21st century, two of the leading protagonists seem to be moving in opposite directions. But despite appearances, the gulf between the Successor to Saint Peter and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques may actually be narrowing.
Pope Benedict XVI chose the eve of Easter to publicly baptize an Egyptian-born convert from Islam to Christianity. That was more than a religious act. It touched a raw nerve. Magdi Allam, the new convert, is an editorial writer for the Italian newspaper Courriere de la Sera and lives under police protection because of his outspoken criticism of Islam.
Allam wrote the next day that the â€œroots of evil are inherent in Islam,â€ that it is a â€œviolentâ€ and â€œantagonisticâ€ religion, and that his baptism sent a â€œrevolutionary messageâ€ to the Catholic church, which â€œout of fear is too cautious about converting Muslims.â€ He went on to state that â€œthousands of Muslim converts to Christianity are obliged to hide their new faith out of fear of being assassinated by Muslim terrorists,â€ while â€œthousands of converts to Islam peacefully live their faiths.â€ Strong words but also accurate. Under the strictest interpretation of Islam, apostasy is punishable by death.
The Pope clearly knew what he was doing when he chose Allam to be one of the half dozen persons he traditionally baptizes on Easter eve. It was not the first time he has drawn a sharp line in the sand between Christianity and Islam. In a speech early in his reign that sent shockwaves around the Muslim world, he quoted a Byzantine emperor who described Islam as â€œevil and inhumane.â€
I happened to attend a conference a few days after Easter sponsored by the World Economic Forum in which Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy and scholars met to further the cause of peaceful coexistence between the West and Islam. One of the participants, a leader of the Muslim community in Milan, said he was â€œembarrassedâ€ by the Pope's move. One of the Catholic participants felt it was unnecessarily provocative.
On the other hand, there were reports this week of possible accommodation between the West and Muslims in a most unexpected place - Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam and the home of one of its strictest forms, Wahabism. King Abdullah launched an appeal to his â€œbrothers in faithâ€ â€“ Christians and Jews â€“ to attend a conference of the three great monotheistic religions. The king, who sees himself as the leader of the Muslim world as well as the owner of a quarter of the world's oil reserves, wants to â€œsave humanityâ€ from a â€œdisintegration of the familyâ€ and the â€œrise of atheism.â€ He expects to present his plan for a conference to the United Nations.
King Abdullah made no mention of Pope Benedict's public baptism of Magdi Allam, preferring instead to talk about his own â€œunforgettableâ€ and historic meeting with the Pope last November in Rome. That meeting may already be bearing fruit. The Vatican recently revealed that it has been secretly negotiating the construction of churches in Saudi Arabia.
That would be a real revolution. Not only does Saudi Arabia forbid the building of churches or temples on its soil. It prohibits the practice of any religion other than Islam, and has even deported foreign workers who attended clandestine Catholic masses. Now it appears that Saudi Arabia's royal family is trying to bend the rules, without breaking the bond with the Wahabi clergy that confers legitimacy on the country's rulers.
The interface between Islam and the West in the 21st century has not been smooth. Christians, Jews and atheists in the West are learning to live with Muslims in their midst. Muslim immigrants are learning to live in countries where they are not the majority. It has been a tough learning process on both sides.
European governments are trying different forms of accommodation. The French favor cultural assimilation, and forbid any expression of religious faith in their state schools. That has fostered a sense of alienation among second generation Muslims of African origin. The British prefer a multicultural approach that has resulted in Asian Muslim ghettos, and at the extreme, home-grown Islamic terrorists. The Germans have kept their Turkish Muslim community largely segregated, but are now trying to integrate them with only marginal success.
The American experience in accommodating its Muslim minority has been far more successful. That may seem surprising, since the United States is so overwhelmingly and enthusiastically Christian, whereas most of Europe is only nominally Christian, or even post-Christian. But American Muslims are better off, better educated, and more closely integrated into the mainstream culture than those in Europe. In short, they share the American Dream.
That may explain at least in part why â€“ since September 11, 2001 â€“ the United States has not experienced the terrorist attacks that have become more frequent in Europe.